When Colby College’s president David Greene saw the ripple effects of the pandemic rapidly shrinking the class of 2020’s job prospects, he made a dramatic move: publicly calling on the college’s 30,000 alumni and their families to open their doors and networks for Colby graduates in search of work. The effort, dubbed Pay it Northward, grabbed national headlines when it launched last April. By November, Pay It Northward had generated upwards of 700 opportunities for the Class of 2020, securing a 90% job placement rate.

Newsworthy as a jobs guarantee in the midst of global recession may have been, Pay it Northward marked an equally striking, albeit brief, internal shift at the college. That spring, Greene repurposed his advancement office to join the effort, asking that they engage their alumni contacts for career help rather than donations. “We took our fundraisers and made them job seekers,” Greene said in an interview last November.

That temporary arrangement bucked tradition in more ways than one. Advancement offices are the beating heart of any postsecondary institution operating a meaningful endowment. As profit centers, they hold immense power over alumni relationships and often command significantly more resources than student support or career services offices. Under normal circumstances, development offices’ progress is measured by their ability to activate alumni networks for checks written, not recent graduates’ jobs secured.

Fundraising’s dominant role is not likely to change any time soon, and Greene’s own advancement team has since gone back to focusing on the college’s ambitious “Dare Northward” giving campaign. But Colby’s story provides a compelling snapshot of an emerging and promising trend in postsecondary education: innovative approaches to tapping alumni for their social capital, not just financial capital. 

In a recent report, “Alumni networks reimagined: Innovations expanding alumni connections to improve postsecondary pathways,” my coauthor Richard Price and I highlight how a range of new approaches and technology tools are doing just that, in an effort to help institutions foster deeper student-alumni connections. These resources—like PeopleGrove, Mentor Collective, Parker Dewey, Riipen, and First Hand, to name a few—are starting to help colleges and universities to enlist and organize alumni across myriad functions like student support, mentorship, career guidance, and work-integrated learning. In turn, they stand to help postsecondary institutions systematically and efficiently scale students’ access to connections while on campus, and to boost graduates’ chances of securing long-term employment and recouping their investment in a degree.

Data suggests that there’s a sizable runway for these innovations to grow. Alumni networks are, of course, part and parcel of the bill of goods that colleges and universities sell to students. But according to a Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, only 9% of college graduates reported that their alumni network was helpful or very helpful in the job market.

That startling statistic says a lot about how much opportunity still exists when it comes to connecting alumni and students. But as Pay It Northward showed, harnessing alumni networks more deliberately will require a clear vision and new ways of doing business. Based on our analysis, the innovation opportunities—and challenges—when it comes to deepening relationships between current students and alumni differ radically among different types of institutions depending on their existing models for alumni engagement, or lack thereof. 

Breaking down silos to scale connections

For players like Colby, with well-established endowments, these new tools could help institutions optimize for access to—rather than just the prestige of—their alumni networks. Brokering these connections is likely to require visionary leadership and cross-departmental efforts, particularly across career services, student support, and advancement. Greene’s Pay It Northward rallying cry on the heels of the 2020 recession was a testament to his broader commitment to employability that he’d brought to the liberal arts college when he arrived on campus in 2014. To focus on career outcomes, he’s spearheaded a program called DavisConnects, which offers all students the opportunity to engage in real-world learning and applied research in addition to their academic load. 

For Greene, this holistic approach replaces a historically underwhelming approach to traditional career services across the postsecondary market. “I’m never doing career services again,” Greene said. “Traditional career services is a failed model in higher education. It’s largely been a tack-on for students who are close to graduation, and we needed something much more fully integrated into our broader mission.”

That said, it took a global pandemic for alumni networks to take center stage in Colby’s efforts. Greene’s example suggests that endowment-driven institutions most motivated to harness alumni networks in new ways may be those that are already innovating across other domains of their business model, with a focus on employability. Outside of the extreme circumstances of last spring, it’s likely that less selective institutions with large endowments may be driven to innovate more rapidly than more elite schools that already enjoy stronger brand equity among employers. 

Boosting students’ ROI through access to networks and jobs

Many other institutions aren’t hamstrung by advancement offices laser-focused on alumni giving, because they simply don’t exist. In fact, the vast majority of total postsecondary institutions in the country have limited endowments and alumni-giving personnel. “There are only 4,000 higher education institutions in the country and only about 700 of them have meaningful endowments or alumni initiatives today,” Reach Capital Partner Chian Gong said in an interview.

For the remaining 3,000+ institutions, constraints and opportunities look different. Although they don’t have as many resources to invest in new initiatives, they have a surprising advantage when it comes to mobilizing their alumni: the flexibility to engage those alumni in ways that don’t compete with Advancement for resources or mindshare. Just as established fundraising processes and siloed departmental structures at wealthy institutions might inhibit innovation, the absence of established alumni engagement approaches serves as fallow ground for new approaches to take root. 

Alumni’s social capital could prove an especially vital resource to helping these institutions thrive in an outcomes-based market. Particularly for institutions that serve primarily local populations, leaders could exert a competitive advantage by tapping alumni across their regional economy to play a variety of roles that boost pathways to jobs. If they can leverage technology to distribute connections in an efficient manner, these institutions could radically change the metrics that drive traditional alumni engagement, measuring their overall value-add to the student experience through connections, support, and opportunities provided, rather than traditional metrics of dollars donated. 

Colby’s success last year doesn’t need to be an anomaly—Pay It Northward demonstrates the power of a new strategic vision towards mobilizing alumni in new ways. If postsecondary institutions’ long-term sustainability hinges on their ability to add measurable value to students’ lives and produce better employment outcomes for their graduates, then connecting students to alumni networks could prove a crucial ingredient to success.

With the right tools and models, postsecondary institutions could start to involve alumni in a range of roles that deliberately equips college-goers with the skills and professional networks they need to thrive in their careers, rather than leaving these connections up to chance. For an industry under pressure to prove its value, institutions stand to benefit from innovations that not only unlock alumni’s net worth, but also their networks.